Exactly one year ago tonight, the Caps were in second place in the Southeast Division, separated from their Florida-based rivals by four points for top spot. A year later and it's a different Florida-based rival atop the Southeast, but the goal is the same: keep 'em close, catch up to 'em, take 'em down.
That had to start tonight, with the Caps traveling to Sunrise to take on the Panthers for what would essentially be a four-point game. Win and the lead would shrink to two with 25 games remaining; lose, it would become a much tougher hill to climb (and give Winnipeg a chance to pass the Caps with a win of their own).
Thankfully the Caps turned what was a solid 60-minute effort into a winning one - and made sure the Panthers could still hear footsteps.
Ten more notes on the game:
- Tomas Vokoun was active early in this one... but not necessarily in a good way, as he spent the better part of the first period fighting the puck, scrambling around the crease, losing his stick (twice), taking a penalty.and generally looking shaky. Thankfully he settled down as the game went on, though, giving up just the one goal at the end of the first before stopping everything the Panthers threw at him. Happy homecoming, Tomas.
- After forty minutes of play, it seemed like this game was headed for an outcome that would cut like a knife to the heart of every Caps fan - a shutout by former Cap Jose Theodore and a game-winning goal by former Cap Tomas Fleischmann. Thankfully their former teammates had a different plan in mind, but if you didn't groan when #14 in red put one past Vokoun...don't worry, there were plenty of people doing it for you.
- Killing penalties at home has been a strong suit for this year's version of the Florida Panthers - in fact, coming into this game they'd surrendered just 13 power play goals at BankAtlantic Center, third-lowest in the NHL. Combine that with the Caps' mighty 28th-ranked road power play (a whopping 11.5% effective until tonight) and even with the numerous opportunities with the extra man it wouldn't have been surprising if the Caps hadn't cashed in. That they did? Game-tying bonus, baby.
- Even though the offense came from the top two lines tonight, the best line for the Caps was easily the fourth line trio of Jeff Halpern, Jay Beagle and Joel Ward. They established a forecheck, kept the Panthers penned into their own zone and generated a ton of scoring chances. That they couldn't finish, well...come on, it was Halpern, Beagle and Ward. Still an excellent effort by all three tonight in a game that needed that energy and that physicality from the get-go.
- Each game the Caps have played over the last few months has seemingly been accompanied by a ridiculously low shot total, dropping them down to an average of 27.7 shots/game. Lately, however, they've been turning it around, only to see their efforts squandered in some way or another. Tonight the Caps fired 75 shots on or toward the net, 41 of them hitting Theodore (or the back of the twine) - their second straight game with 40+ shots, their third game in the last six in which they've cracked 30, and their first win in which they've outshot their opponent since January 3 against Calgary.
- Maybe you could make the case that Mike Knuble's presence in front of Jose Theodore constituted incidental contact. And perhaps that should have resulted in the subsequent goal that was scored on the play being disallowed. But to not only waive off the goal but also put Knuble in the box for a laughable goaltender interference call at the end of the second is up there on the list of horrible blown calls this season. Kudos to the boys for not letting that deflate them, for shaking off the no-goal, sticking to their gameplan and earning those important two points.
- Down by one after twenty, the Caps were faced with tonight's Stat That Wouldn't Die: the Panthers' record when a) scoring the first goal and b) leading after the first period (18-1-6, 10-1-3 respectively). Oddly enough the NHL didn't decide to just call the game right then and actually let them play to figure out if that record would improve or get taken down a notch. They even let it go to the third period, when Florida's 16-0-4 record when up after two was hanging out. Sometimes you've just gotta play the games, kids...
- Ovechkin's power play goal early in the third wasn't just the first time in five goals that a forward dented the twine - it also continued a pattern that has seen the captain shoulder a heavy burden for his team. Quite the sharp angle shot it was, too. Sorry, Theo.
- What they look like doesn't matter as much as whether or not they go in... which is good, because Alexander Semin's bloop single over the shoulder of Theodore won't be on his highlight reel anytime soon. They all count, though, and this one ended up being the all-important game-winner (as well as Semin's fourth goal in the last seven games). All-around good performance for #28, as well, aside from some usual Semin-esque moments.
- Nothing like a little bad blood between two division rivals with one increasingly important game between them remaining on the schedule, right? If you need an enemy, feel free to glare daggers at Kris Versteeg, who decided the dying seconds of a one-goal loss was the perfect time to distribute several cross-checks to the back of Halpern's head. Get a haircut, ya darn hippie.
If the Caps were having trouble finding the energy or inspiration to play their division foes tonight, it certainly didn't show the way it did last time they paid a visit to Sunrise. Tonight was one of those good, solid wins, a game that for a long time felt like it would be the most frustrating of losses simply because they WERE playing well.
Thanks to some timely special teams magic as well as a bit of unraveling by the hosts, though, the Caps took over the game on the ice and on the scoreboard - and as a result head up to Tampa with just two points between them and the top of the division.
Big two points. Keep it rolling, boys.